20 Questions with Tom Huntington, WaterFurnace President and CEO

Originally published: 05.01.12 by Terry Tanker

Publisher Terry Tanker recently talked with WaterFurnace President and CEO Tom Huntington, who is also serving as chairman of the Geothermal Exchange Organization (GEO). They met in Orlando at the WaterFurnace national sales meeting and discussed golf, woodworking, tough business decisions, and empowering employees.

1. Where might we find you on a day off?

I have a passion for anything outdoors. One of the highlights of my year is the hunting season with my two sons and three grandsons. I also love to play golf.

2. Is it true we might also find you in your wood shop?

Yes, that’s true. I love woodworking. My dad was a cabinetmaker, and I learned a lot from him.

3. Do you have a shop at home like Norm Abrams?

(Laughs) I do have a nice shop with the typical power tools, but I also have some hand tools from the 1800s that I inherited and are a joy to use.

4. What is the WaterFurnace vision?

Our vision for the future of residential HVAC is built around four innovations that will drive our business and define the industry for a decade or more. These innovations are variable capacity geothermal heat pumps; advanced zoning systems; integration of “smart” units into home energy management; and the development of renewable hybrid comfort solutions.

5. How does the commercial market play into your strategy?

We’ve gathered a tremendous pool of commercial talent and have increased R&D for commercial products. Our hard work is paying off. In addition to our residential market share increases, we’ve increased commercial market share. An added benefit is that commercial products open doors in the international realm. We’re positioning WaterFurnace to provide solutions wherever power constraints exist around the globe.

6. What part of the business do you spend most of your time on?

Customer interface is critical to any company’s future. It’s a whole spectrum of activities that work to identify the needs of customers. Product planning and marketing are some of the obvious areas, but it even extends to the order-entry process to ensure a smooth customer experience. This is a people-dominated activity.

7. You’re the new chairman of the Geothermal Exchange Organization. Can you tell us about GEO?

I feel blessed to be given the opportunity to lead GEO as it works to represent our industry and promote favorable legislation. This includes Capitol Hill and, more recently, state-level activities as they embrace renewable energy incentives. Membership is made up of like-minded businesses that are interested in the industry’s success and help to fund educational activities, outreach, and awareness marketing.

8. What personal goals do you have this year?

The expansion of our business footprint into a broader global perspective is the No. 1 goal. We need to capture those markets in Asia Pacific where countries are power-constrained and they’re looking to geothermal heat pumps as the solution for economic growth.

9. That’s ambitious. What other goals do you have?

The development of our GeoStar distribution network is a top priority as well. That plays into our commitment to being a leader in the industry with our residential product line.

10. What are the biggest challenges for WaterFurnace in the next three years?

As the geographic spread of geothermal heat pumps expands west of the Mississippi, it will be a challenge to maintain our three-day lead times — even with a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant. We have to consider an additional facility west of the Mississippi. Additionally, maintaining reasonable pricing despite rising commodity prices. And, understanding consumer behavior better to help us recognize where marketing dollars are best spent.

11. What aspect of managing the business do you enjoy most?

Without question it’s working with people.

12. As a manager, what is your strength?

I believe my love for the business is contagious.

13. As a manager, what is your weakness?

I hate the routine administrative tasks, but I realize they’re necessary.

14. What is the toughest business decision you’ve made recently?

We’re self-insured, and our employees have done a fabulous job at holding down healthcare costs. After four years without an increase, we finally had to raise employee premiums.

15. What is your leadership philosophy?

Have an “empowerment strategy.” People closest to the customers have to be solving problems and making the decisions.

16. How has it changed over the years?

I was fortunate to learn this very early in my career and have held on to it, so if anything, it’s become a stronger belief.

17. What is the best business lesson you’ve learned and how has it served you over the years?

Address a problem head on and solve it quickly. Get it behind you. This has saved countless hours of time and energy.

18. Regarding business, when did you say to yourself, “Yeah, I get it. I can be good at business”?

Probably when I was 28. I was fortunate enough to be promoted to run the residential division for a large manufacturer. I was young compared with my peer group, so it was extremely intimidating. But they believed in me and I was grateful for the opportunity.

19. When did you realize there was still a lot to learn?

About two weeks later. I got the promotion and said to myself, “Oh my gosh. What just happened”? But I realized quickly that I had a lot to learn and still feel that way to this day. It keeps you humble.

20. What does our industry have to do better?

We have a number of great organizations, but we don’t speak with one voice — and we need to. Capitol Hill is a complicated environment, and as an industry we’re making it more difficult than it should be.


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